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Is Donald Trump leading a realignment of the GOP? Maybe not.

- March 21, 2016
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to a question during the Republican presidential debate in Detroit on March 3.

Donald Trump’s unexpected success in the presidential primaries has many wondering what it means for the future of the Republican Party. Trump has won an impressive number of delegates with virtually no support from Republican officeholders.

Trump’s rise is so dramatic that commentators at both FiveThirtyEight.com and the Mischiefs of Faction have speculated about whether Trump is part of a long-term party realignment. Time will tell, but based on my forthcoming book on previous realignments, I wouldn’t count on it anytime soon.

When a realignment occurs, parties change the kinds of candidates they nominate and the positions they hold. But this sort of change does not come from candidates alone. It comes from organized interest groups.

For example, in the Democratic Party, the most important change in the last century was arguably its shift toward support for civil rights. At the forefront of this effort were two groups, the CIO and Americans for Democratic Action, who spearheaded the passage of an ambitious civil rights plank at the 1948 Democratic convention. The party’s incumbent president and congressional leaders didn’t want to exorcise Dixie, but transformative groups did.

In subsequent elections, these same groups ensured that platforms and nominees in the Democratic Party were at least as liberal, if not more so, on civil rights. John F. Kennedy gave up the support of the Southern officeholders that he had been cultivating for years because the support of liberal groups was more important at the 1960 convention.

In the Republican Party, an important change was its embrace of social conservatism. This had much to do with the ascent to power of the Christian right in the 1980s and 1990s. Christian-right groups helped transform the Republican Party from the party of mainline Protestants to the party of evangelical Christians. In presidential nomination battles, the Christian Coalition helped their favored candidates in early primary states. For example, their efforts provided Bob Dole and George W. Bush with critical support in  South Carolina primaries.

By contrast, Trump has alienated key interest groups within the parties. Crossing free-marketeers, he has supported protectionism and a single-payer health-care system. Crossing anti-tax groups, he supports progressive taxation. Crossing the neoconservatives, he called the Iraq War a mistake. Trump’s populist agenda is as unpopular among core Republican groups today as it is among officeholders.

Trump’s success is due instead to his ability to appeal to certain voters — especially those who support his stances on immigration and terrorism — through the mass media.

Primaries often features lots of candidates who are unfamiliar to most voters. Interest groups typically rush in to message supporters about their favored candidates. Trump’s dominance of the news media means that he can provide that message himself to just as many voters as interest groups can.

The idea that Trump is ushering in a realignment implies that future candidates will adopt his positions and copy his strategies. And perhaps some will try. After all, Trump’s positions are closer to those of the median Republican voter than are those of some establishment Republicans.

But that doesn’t mean future candidates can replicate his success. Trump’s ability to dominate news coverage depends on a combination of personality, celebrity and willingness to embrace controversy that is rare in politics.

Future Republican candidates may find that they simply aren’t able to win enough of Trump’s supporters to make up for the loss of support among core groups within the party. Candidates whose positions contravene party orthodoxy most often fade away. See, for example, Rudy Giuliani, an abortion-right pro-choice candidate in an antiabortion party.

Moreover, it is not clear that there are organized interests within the GOP who would carry Trump’s agenda into the future. Which interest groups aligned with the GOP would advocate for protectionism or progressive taxation in 2020? Maybe new groups will emerge, but in past realignments, groups spent years building influence within the broader party coalition before their impact became real.

Candidates might adopt Trump’s more strident rhetoric against Islamic terrorists, since it does not antagonize existing groups in the party. Adopting Trump’s position on immigration is trickier, as it divides Republican-aligned groups, with “big business” favoring immigration reform and tea party groups opposing it.

But adopting Trump’s positions on immigration or terrorism amount to differences in degree, not differences in kind. It is much harder to adopt his truly heterodox positions. To use another historical example: In 1994, the House Republicans’ “Contract with America” adopted H. Ross Perot’s concern for balanced budgets, but not his protectionism.

Of course, it is impossible to make ironclad predictions. Some future Republican candidates may try to replicate Trump’s strategy. If these candidates become the dominant force in the party, then Trump can take credit for a realignment.

But past realignments suggest that won’t happen.

Chris Baylor is a visiting assistant professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross.